Summer Study Guide 2011: Conservatory vs. Company School

December 19, 2010

Which is right for you?



As you think about auditioning for summer programs this year, the huge range of choices may seem daunting. Most schools fall under two categories: company schools and conservatories. Both are geared toward professionally minded students and offer intense schedules packed with classes, world-class teachers, and exciting opportunities. So which is the better option? While summer programs vary widely, there are several differences between company schools and conservatories that can help you decide which is a better fit.


Company Atmosphere

Company school intensives give students one major advantage: exposure. Directors have a chance to check out new talent, and if they like what they see, they might offer someone a spot in the school, a traineeship, or even a company apprenticeship.


At Miami City Ballet, artistic director Edward Villella looks for potential students to invite to the school full-time. “That way he can get them trained the way he wants,” says Linda Villella, MCB’s school director, who says it takes about two years for students to fully absorb the company’s style. “Coming to our school allows them to come into the company fully formed,” she remarks. Out of 12 MCB students hired into the company last year, half had been recruited from previous summer intensives.


American Ballet Theatre’s summer intensive programs, held at five locations throughout the country, present several future possibilities, according to the program’s artistic director Melissa Allen Bowman. “You have three prongs of opportunity here,” says Bowman: to nab invitations to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, ABT II, or ABT. “What a great way to see and be seen.” While all five branches provide superb training, spots in the New York City summer intensive are especially coveted for the chance to watch the full company in action for a nominal fee during their season at the Metropolitan Opera House.


Bowman adds that summer programs also let students feel out a company. “When you’re looking for a company,” she says, “you need to know whether or not you’re interested in their rep. At a summer intensive, you get to experience it up close and personal.”


Lola de Avila, associate director of the San Francisco Ballet School, agrees. To give students a taste of SFB’s diverse repertoire, the intensive offers workshops in contemporary styles as well as classical. “Our dancers have to be classical one day and rolling on the floor in a Forsythe piece the next,” she says.


As an added bonus, students share the hallways with professional dancers, and once a week, an SFB principal dancer comes to the dorms to speak with students. “It’s a very relaxed conversation,” says de Avila, “so kids can interact with them and ask whatever they’d like.”


It’s a similar experience at Miami City Ballet School, where company members sometimes pop in to take class. That had an enormous influence on 18-year-old student Sarah Chisholm. “I saw magnificent dancers that I typically would only see in performance, just taking class for themselves,” she says. “Their level of commitment made me want to dance like them.”


But company summer programs aren’t just about talent scouting and meeting professional dancers—and keep in mind that only a few lucky (and highly accomplished) dancers will be offered anything. “Recruiting dancers is not the main point of our summer program,” says de Avila. What students can expect is to improve technically and artistically, while becoming acquainted with the company. “We make sure they go home having learned what we do and how we do it.”


The Conservatory Experience

Conservatory summer programs offer their own set of advantages. Many serve as a gateway to the year-round school, and most provide small class sizes with plenty of individual attention. “Obviously we don’t have the glamour of being affiliated with a professional company,” says Gordon Wright, director of the Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida. “But when you break it down to substance, we aren’t lacking anything.”


Like company schools, conservatories offer opportunities for students looking for serious full-time training. Harid’s summer intensive acts as an extended audition for its scholarship-based, tuition-free school year. In fact, attending the summer program is required for students hoping to be accepted for the academic year. Faculty members rotate each week, giving them time to assess each student. Wright notes that Harid alumni are dancing in major companies like ABT and the Joffrey.


At the summer session of University of North Carolina School of the Arts, students can enroll in either a ballet or a contemporary track. Each track, however, also offers classes in the other discipline, as well as jazz, character, and partnering. The contemporary program attracts many undergraduate students. “We try to tailor to students’ individual needs for either ballet or contemporary,” says dean Ethan Stiefel, “and then allow them to cross-pollinate the two.”


After attending the program last summer, 17-year-old Melanie Jensen was invited to complete her senior year of high school at UNCSA. While she’s been to several company intensives in the past, she valued UNCSA’s broader artistic environment. “Having the experience of working with artists of all kinds—whether it be actors, musicians, visual artists, or filmmakers—was so inspiring and helped further my growth as an artist,” she says. Jensen chose the ballet track but appreciated the aspect of “cross-pollination” with contemporary dance, “especially considering the growing versatility in ballet companies,” she adds.


Company summer programs often accept more than 200 students, while conservatories offer a more intimate setting. The Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts in Torrington, Connecticut, enrolls 70 students for their four-week intensive and 45 for their two-week Apprentice Program in August. For 20-year-old Ben Malone, who attended both programs last summer, the small class sizes made all the difference.


“Details is a big word here,” he says. “Every little port de bras, everything down to the very first things at the barre—it was nice to break it all down.” Malone also enjoyed the connection between faculty and students at Nutmeg. “I’ve noticed that in big company summer programs, the sheer number of people takes away from that one-on-one time.”


Conservatories also give students a wider range of options, says Nutmeg Conservatory principal Ronald Alexander. He adds that attending a company summer program is no guarantee that a student will be offered a position. “We’re not obligated to any ballet company in particular,” he says. “We have contacts to all kinds of companies, as well as colleges and universities. As a result, our students have been accepted all over.” Boston Ballet and Atlanta Ballet offered traineeships to two students last year, while three other students received full scholarships to Mercyhurst College and Point Park University.


Opening Doors

When choosing a summer program, it all comes down to priorities. As you make the audition rounds, keep your future needs in mind. “You’ve got to do your homework,” says Wright. “Undertake a good review of each program and look at the different components. Then decide what’s in line with your interests and aspirations.”


Regardless of whether or not a summer program leads directly to your next step, understand that your biggest benefit will be your learning experience. “One of the great things about summer intensives is that you can go and try something new, or work with a teacher who can open new doors,” says Stiefel. And with the plethora of summer programs available, there is something for everyone. 


Amy Brandt, a dancer with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, is
Pointe magazine’s advice columnist.


Ethan Stiefel teaching class at UNCSA. Photo by Donald Dietz, courtesy UNCSA